Not much of a consolation prize many seasons, but there’s an argument there that this was not only the toughest month in school history, and the toughest in the nation this year, but that the Mountaineers might never again face a stretch where, at the end, all four foes were in the top 15, with a combined 30-1 mark, and a trio of offenses rated first, second and third in the nation.
No matter. That’s been covered, and what’s most imperative now is the ability to piece together victories over the latter half of the slate to salvage a season. That starts with Texas Tech and a game that, it reads here, is not only the biggest via its status as the next one, but that will set an early tone and could well be a catalyst to a mildly successful season or a wildly disappointing one. Consider that after the Raiders, West Virginia plays a Texas team with talent, if not the ability to yet put it together. A loss at home puts WVU on a five-game skid entering Texas, which could easily become six. There’s no salvaging anything at that point, as even with three straight wins to close – again, no surefire accomplishment with the finale’ at Kansas State – the end result would be a 6-6 record and the lowest of bowls.
And once again, West Virginia must deal with a spread air raid style, which has thus far gotten the best of the defense in three of four Big 12 games, at least partially because of the talent differential. Linebacker Jared Barber noted that Texas Tech was a mixture of TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The Red Raiders, he said, do a bit of everything in both the run and pass game and are as varied as any offense the Mountaineers will play. Tech operates much the same way as does WVU and OSU in taking what the defense presents. And much like Dana Holgorsen, Kliff Kingsbury has recognized the change in personnel while incorporating more of the run game.
Tech tailback Deandre Washington is just 63 yards short of 1,000 for the season on a team which is passing for more than 413 yards per game, with a quarterback in Patrick Mahomes who rates first nationally with 3,331 yards on 260-of-402 passing (64.7 percent) with 25 touchdowns. Washington’s stats are solid in that the Raiders are clearly a pass-first team which values that blocking style above the run.
But before too much gets made of Washington nearing 1,000 yards, keep in mind that his stats are comparable to Wendell Smallwood, who has 791 yards over seven games, a per-game difference between the two of nine yards in Smallwood’s favor. Washington isn’t quite as explosive as a fully healthy Smallwood, but packs a punch at 5-8, 200 pounds. His career high in rushing attempts came against WVU last season, when he ran 29 times for 132 yards.
Tech won’t move him around as much as West Virginia does with Smallwood, and the back’s carries are typically out of a one-back set. It’ll be interesting to see if the Mountaineers, as have effectively done much of the year, can clog the middle and limit the run game, forcing Mahomes to throw. The odd stack has matched most running games well this season, even against spread teams. The problems have come against more mobile quarterbacks like Trevone Boykin and Seth Russell. Mahomes isn’t as mobile as either, but he slides well in the pocket and can extend plays.
That’ll put more pressure on the back end of the stack, which has been playing more zone over the last two contests. West Virginia has also struggled in finishing pressure, though accomplishing that against Boykin is so incredibly difficult that the game serves as an outlier. Watch the secondary and see how coordinator Tony Gibson, with Ricky Rumph's return and some added confidence in Daryl Worley – who rebounded from a horrid performance against Baylor with a well-played game at TCU – chooses to handle Texas Tech’s receivers.
Do the Mountaineers fell comfortable in man, or do they try to stay in some more zone, figuring they might not be able to pressure Mahomes as well as they’d like, but better than they did against Boykin? Or does Gibson revert to form and try more man, albeit likely without the cover zero attitude of the past? Tech is such a mirror image of some past West Virginia teams, Barber noted, that the defense will have seen much of the formations and can anticipate, to an extent, the calls. These teams will pull a bit of tomfoolery, but much of this will be basic numerics and which can win individual battles. Both sidelines will have to truly hide signals, something that happens in likely 25-plus percent of Big 12 games.
Likely the statistic to watch is how often both teams can convert, and on the flipside, get off the field on third downs. Texas Tech leads the nation (TCU is second) in third down conversion percentage at 55 percent (but is strangely 83rd in fourth down conversions). Part of that is staying ahead of the sticks, part is the addition of a running game and part of simply being able to execute in an offense where third and five shouldn’t be all that difficult – bit has been for some versions.
West Virginia is the ninth-best third down defense, allowing foes just 29.6 percent. This reads like an obvious statement, but if WVU can limit the big plays and not blow coverage, or allow Jakeem Grant a series of explosive plays from hiss wideout position, then this becomes the de facto stat of the game. The Mountaineers limited a similar Oklahoma State team in dominating fashion, and it still possesses the talent to do the same this game. Eye the third downs, and the distances needed for each team, because that will be a telltale look at points-per-possession in what should be a back-and-forth affair.
In the other two sides of the ball, the issues are far different in that West Virginia simply needs to worry about itself. The special teams coverage unites have been fantastic, and Joe DeForest credits that to keeping the same players in similar schemes and the talent having a year more of experience with the expected better execution. Josh Lambert's health is improving, and it figures the junior will again find his form in the placekicking game. Nick O'Toole keeps soldiering on, and his placement, distance and hang time will be much needed to pin the Raiders and force the offense to move the greater distances for scores. In this, West Virginia has an edge, and it must maximize it.
Offensively, the problem hasn’t been as much the opponent as the Mountaineers themselves. It’s been written, dissected, detailed and delved into so heavily it’ll get nary a mention here; problems with blocking in both the run and pass, but rarely at the same time, the dropped passes for a game, then some mediocre quarterbacking, the inability to score in the red zone, the penalties. It’s always a mixture, never all six, but enough of a combination that, when combined against the outstanding talent being played in at least three of the four losses, was enough to be lethal.
So there’s really not much point in examining a Tech defense that allows 43.4 points, 572.7 yards and has allowed a whopping 85 percent scoring rate in the red zone, with an incredible 36 of the 39 scores being touchdowns. This defense, regardless of playing Baylor and TCU and Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, is not good. It stops neither the run nor the pass. It allows big plays. It allows scores in the red zone to teams without a great ability to punch in from close, i.e. Oklahoma State. It gave up 445 points to Sam Houston State and 31 to Iowa State, to say nothing of the 55, 63, 63 and 70 against the Big 12’s big four.
If West Virginia, after a Thursday game, with an extra two days to prepare, cannot find success in this game, it never will this season. The Mountaineers absolutely must worry only about themselves, securing the ball, finishing blocks, progression through reads, all the basics of execution. The first part is likely the most important. WVU can at least stay in the contest if they do not turn the ball over. Tech’s defense, partially because of sheer number of possessions, has forced 17 fumbles this season, recovering eight. Combined with the 10 interceptions, the Raiders are averaging two turnovers gained per game.
Keep that number to one or fewer, and make the routine plays, and the chance to win will be there in the fourth quarter. Don’t, and an unsteady offense, combined with Tech’s ability to put points up quickly, could put an end to whatever legitimacy the season had left with four games still to play.